JUST A JOURNALIST: ON THE PRESS, LIFE, AND THE SPACES BETWEEN
By Linda Greenhouse
Harvard University Press, $22.95, 183 pages
Linda Greenhouse has some important things to say about how well journalism is fulfilling its duty in a democracy. And she has three impressive soap boxes from which to say it: her position, after 40 years on the staff, as a contributing editor to The New York Times, a lecturer at Yale Law school; and a prestigious publisher for her new book, "Just a Journalist." She has failed to make full use of those advantages.
Ms. Greenhouse's central thesis is that reporters' and editors' mantra of "objectivity" actually produces distorted coverage. She certainly doesn't advocate biased or opinionated journalism, but she does argue that the concept of impartiality as applied today is a barrier to the reporter giving readers or viewers what he or she knows is the most honest, most useful version of events.
Her argument is especially timely because in the coverage of candidate and then President Trump there are increasing examples of the more gloves-off style of journalism she advocates.
One of the two practices that are her prime targets is using hedged language when the facts support something more blunt and direct, opting for "enhanced interrogation technique" rather than "torture." And she decries the "distancing construction" that wraps what is clearly a fact in a package of words that suggests that it is merely an opinion of some; she points out The New York Times article calling Fox News "a channel with a reputation for having a conservative political view" for watering down that description with the "a reputation for."
Ms. Greenhouse's central target is the concept of "objectivity," which pervades journalism education and practice. Part of her complaint is a personal vendetta that has occupied her at least since 1989, when she was taken to task for attending a "march for reproductive rights" on the National Mall. A requirement that journalists be unbiased doesn't mean that they cannot participate in the political process, she maintains.
But more important than that inside-the-newsroom issue is how the mantra of "objectivity" is reflected in what journalists write and broadcast - "the instinct bred in American journalists' bones that there must be at least two sides to every story and to offer only one is to embark on a dangerous journey."
She finds this manifest in "false equivalency": devoting roughly equal portions of a story to quotes from opposing sides of an issue when, in fact, there are few advocates for or supporting arguments for one of those sides. Closely related is the sin of turning for quotes - particularly to represent the little-held view - to easily accessed "experts" who have ready a pithy statement but, in fact, they have little background in the issue at hand.
She's right. As she acknowledges, those who would reform the profession have been saying for years that the yardstick for journalism should be "sorting out the false claims from the true and discarding or at least labeling the false. It is calling public officials to account rather than simply - accurately - summarizing their press releases and public utterances."
So why is one so unenthusiastic about the book?
Well, in the first place, it is hardly a book at all, running only around 30,000 words - and a third of that devoted to a professional autobiography that is rarely relevant or interesting. The book's origin is a series of Harvard lectures Ms. Greenhouse gave in November 2015, and she simply hasn't done the protean work of expanding those into a full discussion of the important issues she raised.
Her examples are parochially almost all from The New York Times itself. So we get no evidence that the problems she highlights are common throughout American journalism (although they are) and no sense of how widespread is the new tendency of calling spades spades. Is this really a turning point in the way journalists approach the way they tell a story?
Ms. Greenhouse writes: "I have no certainty that anything fundamental has changed," but does not further address whether it has, why she is uncertain, or what indicators one might look for to answer that question. Nor does she explain how reporters can get the information to make informed judgments on truth and falsehood when they are pressed to deliver their copy ever faster as their outlets compete online in real time.
Using bolder, less nuanced language in describing events and giving more attention to the side in any policy debate that has the more persuasive evidence can be a slippery slope, and she doesn't address the tough question of just when the brakes should be applied and who should apply them. Who should decide when a topic is truly debatable or when qualifying language is needed? And what standards should be used in deciding?
Those are the conundrums that need at least tentative answers for a more robust but impartial journalism to develop.
• Daniel B. Moskowitz, a journalist based in Washington, worked alongside Linda Greenhouse for many years when he covered the U.S. Supreme Court for BusinessWeek magazine.